INDEPENDENT LENS “MR. SOUL”

Indie Lens’ award-winning documentary “Mr. Soul!” is a fascinating celebration of the black variety show “Soul!”. Initially produced for WNET, the program ran for 5 years and was broadcast by public television stations across the country. Produced by Black creators for a Black audience, the show focused on the vibrancy of the Black experience, which was groundbreaking and unheard of in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Tonight, “Mr. Soul” director, producer and writer Melissa Haizlip joins us with an inside look at this cultural treasure.

For more information on “Mr. Soul!,” click here.

TRANSCRIPT

> TODAY, EVERY HOUR ON TELEVISION, BLACKS HAVE NONE.

JAMES BALDWIN.

PATTI LABELLE.

AL GREEN.

STEVIE WONDER.

THIS IS EVERY DAY.

ELVIS CAME AT A TIME WHEN THERE WERE SO FEW POSITIVE AFRICAN-AMERICAN IMAGES ON TELEVISION.

THERE IS NOTHING, NOTHING WE CANNOT DO.

IT'S REVOLUTIONARY.

THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE TO SOUL.

♪ ♪

> HELLO.

I'M JENNA FLANNIGAN.

THAT WAS A QUICK PREVIEW OF THE AWARD-WINNING INDEPENDENT LENS DOCUMENTARY 'MR. SOUL,' A FASCINATING, ENTERTAINING AND LONG OVERDUE CELEBRATION OF THE GROUNDBREAKING FLACK VARIETY SOUL 'SOUL,' INITIALLY PRODUCED FOR WNET, THE PROGRAM RAN FOR FIVE YEARS AND WAS BROADCAST BY PUBLIC TELEVISION STATIONS ACROSS THE COUNTRY, AND IT HAD, AT ITS SINGULAR FOCUS, FULL NOT AND VIBRANCY OF THE BLACK EXPERIENCE.

SOUL WAS A SHOW MADE BY BLACK CREATORS FOR A BLACK AUDIENCE, SOMETHING THAT WAS COMPLETELY UNHEARD OF IN THE 1960s AND '70s AND THE SERIES IS NOW CONSIDERED A CULTURAL TREASURE.

JOINING ME NOW TO TALK ABOUT THE DOCUMENTARY IS THE DIRECTOR, PRODUCER AND WRITER MELISSA HISLIF, WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM.

THANK YOU SO MUCH!

IT'S GREAT TO BE HERE.

THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

SO WONDERFUL TO HAVE YOU, AND THANK YOU FOR BRINGING US THIS AMAZING DOCUMENTARY, BUT FIRST, I JUST WANT TO SAY THAT SOME OF OUR VIEWERS AT WNET MIGHT REMEMBER THE PROGRAM 'SOUL,' BUT WHAT WAS IT TO YOU, AT LEAST THAT MADE IT SO UNIQUE FOR THE TIME THAT IT EXISTED.

I THINK THAT IT IS SUCH AN INCREDIBLE TIME CAPSULE FOR NOT ONLY PUBLIC TELEVISION, BUT THE LANDSCAPE OF TELEVISION AND TWHA FOLKS WERE DOING IN AMERICA AND HOW THEY WERE PUSHING BACK AND THIS BEAUTIFUL WINDOW INTO THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT AND A CREATIVITY AND A NEW EXPRESSION OF ART, POLITICS, THE FIGHT FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE AND THIS TRIFECTA WAS NOT WHAT WE KNEW ON TELEVISION AND IT WAS TO GO BACK AND SEE THIS MOMENT WHERE YOU HAVE SO MANY ARTISTS WHO ARE HOUSEHOLD NAMES NOW AND KNOW THAT THIS HAPPENED WITH THE BIRTH OF PUBLIC TELEVISION AND THE BIRTH OF DIVERSITY IN TELEVISION, REALLY, IT'S REALLY REMARKABLE, AND I LOVE UNSUNG HERO STORIES AND IT DEFINITELY FALLS IN THAT CATEGORY AND FOR THOSE WHO DON'T KNOW THE SHOW IT'S LIKE THE GREATEST SHOW YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF, BUT HONESTLY IT WAS A REAL SHOW AND IT WAS REALLY GROUNDBREAKING.

SO TO BE ABLE TO LOOK AT IT WITH FRESH EYES AND WATCH WITH YOUR FAMILY, WITH MUSICIANS, DANCERS AND SINGERS AND IT JUST GIVES YOU A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON THE BLACK EXPERIENCE AND IT'S PARTICULARLY STARTLING HOW INTIMATE AND REVEALING IT IS AND HOW IT STILL RESONATES TODAY.

MANY OF THE THEMES THAT WERE PART OF THE SHOW.

WELL, SPEAKING OF FAMILY BECAUSE SO MANY OF THE PEOPLE THAT WERE FEATURED IN IT BE IT POET, WRITERS, DANCERS, MUSICIANS ARE PEOPLE THAT AT LEAST ESPECIALLY AFRICAN-AMERICANS OF MY GENERATION WOULD HAVE GROWN UP WITH IF YOU WERE BORN IN THE '70s, BUT THE FAMILY ASPECT IS PARTICULARLY UNIQUE TO YOU, AND I'M SURE SOME PEOPLE MIGHT REALIZE THAT YOU HAVE THE SAME LAST NAME AS THE HOST OF THE SHOW.

SO JUST TELL US QUICKLY, WHAT IS THE CONNECTION?

IT WAS NOT ONLY MY FAVORITE BABYSITTER, BUT HE WAS ALSO MY UNCLE AND I GOT TO KNOW HIM AS A CHILD AND HE WAS WITH US AT THE TIME HE WAS MAKING 'SOUL.'

HE LIVED ON THE UPPER EAST SIDE AND EVEN THOUGH HE HAD HIS OWN APARTMENT IN CHELSEA ON FIFTH AVENUE HE LOVED COMING BACK TO OUR PLACE AND SO I WAS REALLY EXPOSED AT A VERY EARLY AGE TO MAGICAL CODERY OF FRIENDS THAT I FOUND OUT LATER WERE JAMES EARL JONES AND MELBA MORRIS AND EVEN WHEN HE WOULD BRING OVER BETTY SHABBAZ AND THEIR CHILDREN, MALCOLM X'S CHILDREN, WE WOULD PLAY UNDER THE TV -- UNDER THE TABLE WHERE THE TV WAS.

IT ENCOURAGED ME GROWING UP AND HE WAS A MENTOR TO ME AND HELPED ME SEE MY TRAJECTORY AS AN ARTIST, AND I KNOW HE REALLY INSPIRED SO MANY MORE ARTISTS AND THAT'S WHEN I REALIZED THAT THE STORY REALLY WASN'T ABOUT ME AS MUCH AS I LOVED HIM SO MUCH, BUT IT REALLY REPRESENTED A VERY UNIQUE STAMP ON THE CURATIONS OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS, HISTORY, CULTURE AND ART.

SPEAKING ABOUT WHO SOMETHING IS ABOUT, THROUGH THE FILM WE LEARNED YOUR UNCLE ELLIS DIDN'T WANT 'SOUL' TO BE A SHOW ABOUT HIM, AND HE WANTED IT TO BE FOR AND ABOUT THE CULTURE, BUT THE FILM IS TITLED 'MR. SOUL' AND IT IS VERY MUCH SORT OF THE SHOW THAT HE HELPED CREATE AND THE PEOPLE HE MADE SURE GOT NATIONAL ATTENTION ON TELEVISION.

EXACTLY, AND IN THE BEGINNING WE ENVISIONED THE FILM WOULD BE ABOUT, YOU KNOW, MR. SOUL AND THE BIRTH OF BLACK POWER TELEVISION OR THE BIRTH OF BLACK POWER TV AND WE DIDN'T WANT IT TO BE ABOUT THE RISE AND FALL BECAUSE THAT WAS A LITTLE BIT -- AND WHY THEY CALLED HIM MR. SOUL IS BECAUSE AFTER SHOWS HE WOULD GO OUT INTO THE COMMUNITY AND WE DIDN'T HAVE SOCIAL MEDIA AND IN ORDER TO GET A BEAT OR A READ ON HOW THE CULTURE WAS RESPONDING HE'D GO TO HARLEM OR THE VILLAGE AND HE'D ASK PEOPLE, IT WAS VERY EASY TO FIND PEOPLE AND ASK PEOPLE, DID YOU SEE SOUL?

OF COURSE, THEY HAD.

HE CALLED IT THE DRUM.

YOU KNOW IN AFRICAN CULTURE AND ESPECIALLY OUR HISTORY, THE DRUM WAS THE WAY THE MESSAGES WERE SENT ACROSS IN DRUMMING CIRCLES AND DRUMMING MESSAGES OFTEN ESPECIALLY WHEN FOLKS WERE ENSLAVED.

SO HE CALLED IT THE DRUM WHEN HE WAS CONNECTING EVERYONE AND THEY'D SEE HIM ON THE STREET AND THEY COULDN'T PRONOUNCE HIS NAME AND THERE GOES SOUL -- MR. SOUL.

THAT'S MR. SOUL.

THAT'S THE GUY FROM SOUL.

MR. SOUL.

SO THAT BECAME HIS NICKNAME AND WE THOUGHT HOW PERFECT.

EVEN ON HIS TOMBSTONE, AND WE THOUGHT, THIS IS PERFECT BECAUSE IT SORT OF EMBODIES WHAT WE'RE TRYING TO DO WITH THE FILM WHICH IS A MARRIAGE OF THE BIOGRAPHY OF THE SHOW AND THE BIOGRAPHY OF THE MAN WHICH IS NOT YOUR USUAL, YOU KNOW, IT'S NOT THE USUAL TEMPLATE FOR A DOCUMENTARY.

YOU USUALLY CHOOSE ONE OR THE OTHER AND MAKE A BIOPIC OR YOU MAKE A SHOW THAT'S MORE LIKE A GREAT PERFORMANCES OR AMERICAN MASTERS OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT, BUT WE THOUGHT IT'S INEXTRICKABLE, THE IMPACT AND THE IMPRINT OF THIS MAN ON THIS SHOW AND SO THAT'S WHY WE CALLED IT MR. SOUL.

WELL, ONE OF THE OTHER THINGS THAT AGAIN, JUST MAKES THE DOCUMENTARY, EVERY DOCUMENTARY, OF COURSE, WILL DRAW ON ARCHIVAL IMAGES AND FOOTAGE, ET CETERA, BUT THE FOOTAGE THAT YOU WERE ABLE TO GET FROM THE SHOW, WASN'T NECESSARILY SOMETHING THAT YOU CAME ACROSS EASILY.

ONE MIGHT THINK THAT OF COURSE, IF IT'S AIRED ON TV BY TODAY'S STANDARDS IT WOULD ALL BE ARCHIVED SOMEWHERE, BUT THAT WASN'T NECESSARILY YOUR JOURNEY.

NO, IT CERTAINLY WASN'T, AND I WOULD SAY I CHARACTERIZED THE JOURNEY AS MORE OF A COMBINATION OF A WILD GOOSE CHASE MEETS A PRIVATE DETECTIVE MEETS A SCAVENGER HUNT, OKAY?

BECAUSE YOU WERE CONSTANTLY TRYING TO FIGURE OUT AND PIECE TOGETHER WHERE ARE THE TAPES?

WHERE ARE THE ARCHIVES?

CHANNEL 19, A PBS STATION IN NEW YORK HAD 46 HARD COPIES, BUT THERE WERE 130 EPISODES OVER A PERIOD OF FIVE YEARS.

SO MY MISSION, REALLY WAS TO GO OUT INTO THE WORLD AND FIGURE OUT WHERE ARE THEY?

ARE THERE ANY BOOTLEGS?

WHERE IS THE GUY IN THE WEST VILLAGE THAT USED TO SPREAD OUT HIS BLANKET AND SELL IT ON WEDNESDAY.

I WON'T SAY HIS NAME.

I WENT OVER TO ANA MARIA'S HOUSE AND PEOPLE MADE TAPES FOR HER OVER THE YEARS.

SHE WOULDN'T LET ME LEAVE WITH THEM AND SHE LET ME WATCH THEM.

PEOPLE HAVE A PROPRIETARY EXPERIENCE.

I KNEW THERE WERE A FINITE EPISODES IN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS AND A FINITE NUMBER IN THE SMITHSONIAN.

HIS COLLECTION WAS THERE AFTER HE PASSED AWAY AND ANACOSTIA WHICH IS THE SMITHSONIAN AND THE Q ANACOSTIA MUSEUM.

AND SO LITERALLY CALLING OUT THE GUY THAT WAS THE SOUND GUY.

I KNOW YOU HAVE THE TAPES BECAUSE YOU RECORDED IT.

MAYBE YOU HAVE A FEW STASHED ON THE SIDE?

IT'S NOT AN ISSUE OF PIRACY.

THIS IS AN ISSUE OF ARCHIVAL AND ARCHIVING AND AS YOU WERE SAYING, THIS CONCEPT OF ARCHIVING STARTED VERY LATE IN OUR SOCIETY AND THERE WERE OTHER SHOWS LIKE THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM MACHINE AND OTHER PUBLIC TELEVISION SHOWS THAT FELL UNDER THAT DEMISE, AS WELL BECAUSE THE IDEA OF KEEPING LIVE TELEVISION SHOWS AND IT JUST DIDN'T MAKE SENSE.

YOU TAPED OVER IT OR YOU THREW OUT THE TAPE BECAUSE IT DIDN'T WORK.

SO IT WAS QUITE A JOURNEY PULLINGING THIS ARCHIVE TOGETHER AND SOMETIMES I HAVE CLIPS OF PERFORMANCES, BUT NOT ACTUAL SOUL EPISODES.

WE REALLY HAD TO THINK ABOUT THAT AND FIND THE BEST MOMENTS AND TRY TO MATCH THAT WITH THE MOMENTS THAT WERE HAPPENING IN THE ELLIS' LIFE.

SPEAK OF PUBLIC TELEVISION.

OUR MISSION, IF YOU WILL, IS TO BE EDUCATIONAL TELEVISION AND I THINK FOR SOME VIEWERS ESPECIALLY AT THAT TIME THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN CONFUSING TO SEE A SHOW LIKE SOUL ON A CHANNEL THAT'S SUPPOSED TO BE EDUCATIONAL.

IT DOES SERVE THAT PURPOSE AND I'M WONDERING IF YOU CAN EXPLAIN HOW THAT WORKED AT LEAST THROUGH ELLIS' EYES.

HE BELIEVED THAT IT WAS A SOURCE OF LIBERATION.

EVEN THOUGH IT WAS NATIONAL EDUCATION TELEVISION AND WNET, AFTER IT BECAME WNET, AND IT WAS A BLACK EXPERIENCE AND IF YOU SHARED THAT THAT WAS GOOD ON YOU AND HIS JOB WAS NOT TO CREATE OR TO BE THE PURVEYOR OF THE CULTURE, BUT RATHER TO PRESENT THE CULTURE IN ITS AUTHENTICITY AND ITS UNAPOLOGETICALLY BLACK CONCEPT.

IT ENDS UP BEING ENTIRELY EDUCATIONAL BECAUSE OF THE WORLD WE ARE IN AND THE FACT THAT PEOPLE DIDN'T HAVE THAT KIND OF INFORMATION.

THE ONLY BLACK PUBLIC TELEVISION AT THE TIME WAS THE PUBLIC AFFAIRS SHOW WHICH WAS A NEWS BROADCAST.

FOR HIM TO COMBINE THE PUBLIC AFFAIRS AND, YOU KNOW, LIFT IT UP WITH BLACK CULTURE AND WHAT WAS HAPPENING WITH THE STREETS AND THE GRILLOS, THAT WAS EXPONENTIALLY EDUCATIONAL AND I STILL THINK IT HAS A VERY EDUCATIONAL -- WELL, AN EDUCATIONAL VIBE TO IT TODAY.

I THINK YOU CAN LEARN SO MUCH FROM IT.

WELL, WE'VE ONLY GOT A FEW MOMENTS LEFT, ABOUT 30 SECONDS, BUT I'D LOVE TO GET YOUR TAKE BECAUSE WATCHING THE DOCUMENTARY 'MR. SOUL' AFTER HAVING LIVED THROUGH IT, LIKE 2020, IT'S UNBELIEVABLY RELEVANT AND IT'S ALMOST 50 YEARS OLD.

DO YOU THINK THERE'S ROOM FOR A SHOW LIKE 'SOUL' TO EXIST AGAIN?

I THINK THERE IS ROOM.

THE QUESTION IS WHAT WOULD THE PLATFORM BE?

I THINK THE DESIRE IS THERE AND I THINK WE NEED AN UNFILTERED, UNFETTERED, NON-COMMERCIAL SPACE TO BE FREE IN ORDER TO ASSESS OURSELVES FULLY IN ALL OF OUR COMPLEXITIES AND DISAGREEMENTS AND BEAUTY AND THE MYRIAD FORMS OF THAT AND NOT PRESCRIBED BY CRITICS OR MONEY OR COMMERCIALIZATION AND THAT KIND OF AGENDA.

WE DEFINITELY NEED THAT AND WE NEED A PLATFORM, FOR NOT JUST WHAT SOUL WAS AND A PLATFORM, AND THIS TRIFECTA IS WHAT WE DO NEED RIGHT NOW.

I SAY YES, I THINK WE COULD DEFINITELY USE A LITTLE SOUL TO RESTORE THE SOUL OF A NATION.

IT'S REVOLUTIONARY, YOU KNOW?

IT MADE A BIG DIFFERENCE.

UNFORTUNATELY, WE'RE GOING TO HAVE TO LEAVE IT THERE AND I CAN CONTINUE TALKING TO YOU ABOUT THIS FILM AND FOR VIEWERS WHO WANT TO KNOW, YOU CAN CATCH THE INDEPENDENT LENS PRESENTATION OF 'MR. SOUL' RIGHT HERE ON 13,WHERE, ARE WNET WHERE IT STARTED OR GO TO MET LOW FO FOCUS.ORG FOR MORE INFORMATION.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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